Keeping Alive

It is so early in the morning that the time doesn’t even matter. I’m in the bottom bunk, my sister is above me. Braver than I am, she has taken the top bunk, much closer to our crooked ceiling fan. I’m afraid that it will slice my head in two when I’m asleep, but I’m also afraid that it will slice her head in two when she is asleep. On most nights, I turn the fan off once she has gone to bed. Our father comes through the doorway and switches on the light, and ever since then, I will associate flying with the confusion of a harsh yellow light breaking my sleep. He wakes me without ceremony; he is worried we will miss our flight. As I sit in bed, still under the covers, my mother hands me the clothes I am to wear. I change and fall asleep again. Our father comes back through the door and tells me to repeat after him: “Namo arihantanam, namo siddhanam, namo aryanam, namo upadhyanam, nama loe sabba sahunam.” I repeat after him, too tired to giggle at these unfamiliar words. He tells me that this is a prayer we say before we fly so that we will be safe. On the car ride to the airport, I repeat the words incessantly — the words I can remember, at least — so that we may always be safe, one long prayer for all the journeys we will ever take.

As a child, my parents taught me many things: some magical (don’t make faces; if the winds change direction, your face will get stuck that way), some important (call your grandparents). But my family has never been religious. I was never asked to memorize prayers or to place my faith in rituals. At home, our religion was nothing more than my grandfather’s nightly retellings of the Ramayana, whispered into our ears. Our trips to temples, few and far between, felt like visiting distant relatives — people I had only vaguely heard of and never really known.

It is so early in the morning that the time doesn’t even matter. I’m in a car, sitting beside my father, driving to my great-grandmother’s funeral. My brother is too young to have come with us; my sister can’t afford to miss school. I’m either on the bank of a river, or in a big field, with a hand on a flaming stick that is held by my father and his father; we are setting the pyre alight. All around me, my family is weeping: loud, gasping sobs that will stay with me much longer than the hazy memories of my great-grandmother. As the sun rises, so does the sound of weeping.

Today, there is nothing more I can recall from that day other than the sinking feeling that, one day, it will be someone else on that pyre — a sibling, a parent, an uncle, a friend. Since that morning, at some age so young the age doesn’t even matter, I have only recited prayers in times of uncertainty: at uneasiness before flying, or a loud pop in the gulley behind my house. I have come to associate religion with a hopeless fear, a sinking desire to shrink everyone I love and keep them safe in my pocket. And, with time — with moving countries and a growing understanding that death is as likely as life — praying has become akin to sweeping bulging masses of anxiety under the rug, a futile rebellion against nature’s impenetrable logic.

Can faith be more than struggling to keep things from dying? Maybe, there is nothing in the world that we can separate from death. Maybe, faith is a crutch. Maybe, though, on more hopeful days, faith can be struggling to keep things alive — to offer our lives as incantations: memories that we craft into stories and breathe into the air, that we repeat to everyone in our proximity until they find new life in the present. This faith is a tradition of art — of the reproduction of lost things — that has existed for millennia, and extends beyond protesting everyday fears of life, to the political.


Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian author, writes of a quiet revolution under dictator François Duvalier’s watchful eye in 1960s Haiti. Then, dissenting citizens performed Greek classics, rewritten for Haiti’s political climate, hidden in living rooms and church basements. These small revolutions came when “not reading or writing was a survival mechanism” and honored those that had fallen to a totalitarian regime, reproducing their legacies in the consciousness of generations to come. Creating “memorial art,” as Danticat puts it, can be an act of protesting the suddenness with which things die — an act of faith that keeps things alive.

On hopeful days, faith in art-making is the religion I call my own; on others, religion is an open-ended question, known only through the fear of losing.

— Contributing writer Yash Kumbhat’s column, “Portrait of a Time” is a personal essay column that discusses representation of home and identity in art through narratives from a Kolkatan perspective.